Teenagers today - out of school, out of work, and on your street corner. Is the national curriculum to blame? Susan Young finds out how we can give pupils something they can actually use
British teenagers are topping the league tables, and not in a good way.
When it comes to behaving badly - getting drunk, getting pregnant, hanging round in intimidating gangs - they're world class. They are less likely to stay on in education after they have to, and in some communities the must-have qualification is an ASBO not a GCSE.
And teachers are at the sharp end: for many, dealing with low-level disruption is now part of the job. Poor parenting, rap culture and peer pressure have all been blamed for the problem. But now a new question is being asked: could the school curriculum be causing the trouble? And is the answer old-fashioned vocational education?
"It's not all down to the national curriculum, but I think it's a significant factor," says Alan Klee, a Kent head. "The curriculum hasn't been differentiated enough to provide access for young people and therefore it disengages them." Since school is a microcosm of society, pupils who become separated from one can also feel adrift from the other, he says.
"You can see the thuggery in large cities. Some people feel detached; they just don't feel their education was appropriate. They think that from very early on, in primary school. Youngsters become detached from their community, see themselves as outsiders and outside society and eke out a living by other methods."
While Mr Klee, head of Minster College on the Isle of Sheppey, says he is a big supporter of the national curriculum and the way in which it entitles pupils to a body of knowledge, he thinks there are problems.
"Education put off a lot of kids by forcing them to do things that weren't appropriate for them. Take a low-level group trying to learn French when they can't master English - what are we doing for them? Why are we transferring pupils up the system when they can't read or write?"
Mr Klee is not alone in his worries about the effect the national curriculum is having on teenagers. More than half of the teachers polled by The TES (see this week's paper for details) thought behaviour would improve if they could set their own curriculum, with a third convinced that the content of the curriculum makes it harder to manage behaviour.
Many teachers say the national curriculum is too academic and not vocational enough. Some pupils either can't cope with the work or aren't interested, and so misbehave in class, and that can start in primary school. An Ofsted report, Improving Behaviour, published this month, said a whole-school approach including the provision of a "motivating" curriculum was vital.
And it's not just teachers who are thinking this way. Perhaps the most wide-ranging analysis came last week from think tank ippr, which says many teenagers fail to make a successful transition to adult life because the world of work has changed, and social skills such as working in a team are now crucial. Among its suggestions were that these skills be integrated into mainstream education.
Increasing numbers of schools are voting with their feet, using their recently-acquired powers to vary the curriculum. Most are experimenting with skills-based, vocational classes.
Professor Sue Hallam of the London University's Institute of Education believes some school behaviour difficulties came from the national curriculum: "Prior to that it was perfectly normal for some kids to have a couple of weeks at the local tech doing things which were work-oriented.
For the girls there was probably cooking, for the boys, woodwork.
"When the national curriculum came in everyone had to do the same, it was all very academic. If you take a historical perspective you'll find a lot of the problems stem from that time.
"Cookery became food design, and very academic and much more complicated.
The same thing happened with woodwork, metalwork, previously practical things which became academic. There was nowhere else to go so that created problems."
But skills-based lessons are making a comeback. Two increasingly popular national schemes are Skill Force, where pupils are instructed by former Armed Forces personnel, and the RSA's Opening Minds project, which partly replaces subject-based lessons with a focus on acquiring and using work and social skills. Both are shown to improve behaviour.
Skill Force has teams in 200 schools in England, Scotland and Wales, and gets pupils working for practical qualifications including first aid certificates, ASDAN awards (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, all of which can take them into further education or employment.
Steve Bowden, head of Porth County Community School in the Rhondda in Wales, says his pupils have earned the equivalent of an extra 3.5 to four GCSEs with awards earned with Skill Force. "It certainly improves the sort of behaviour we see over two years of the Skill Force programme. It gives them a little more time to mature," he says.
Professor Hallam, who evaluated Skill Force three years ago, says: "The children who do this are the most disaffected: they either don't turn up for school or behave badly when they're there. It turns them round. They see the point of qualifications when they are practically based and they can put them on job applications. It motivates them. The parents I've spoken to are absolutely thrilled with it. The whole vocational curriculum, getting children to do things they can do and can succeed at, related to the long-term in terms of getting a job, makes a big difference."
Sylvia Campbell, the charity's education director, says: "All they have in common is that they are not coping with the traditional curriculum. Quite a few of our young people get re-engaged into the traditional curriculum and learn coping methods.
"It's helped to reduce truancy and exclusions, and also by motivating young people to become more focused on what they can achieve, it goes into other areas as well."
Schools experience less challenging behaviour, she says, and the changes can astonish staff. "One of our heads told me one of their most disruptive teenagers opened a door for them in the hallway," she said.
Slightly less physical is the RSA's Opening Minds approach, which replaces part of the subject-based timetable for 12-year-olds with projects intended to instil useful life skills.
One reason for concentrating on Year 7 is to ease the transition to secondary school. "When schools decide they want to take part, we get someone from the senior management team to shadow a Year 7 for a week. They say things like: 'nightmare', 'chaos', 'how on earth do they make sense of it?'," says Lesley James of the RSA.
Behaviour improves in Opening Minds lessons, she says. "You get less low-level disruption because the students are working in teams or groups.
Working on a project for six weeks keeps them motivated."
Primaries with a similar project-based approach to learning also report good motivation. "Ninety-nine per cent of our children are on task at any time, and I can take a visitor anywhere," says Janet Huscroft, head of Hook C of E Primary in Goole.
Schools are also creating their own vocational curriculum at KS4, although organisation can be a nightmare. The demands of the academic curriculum mean few schools have instructors, and co-ordinating timetables with colleges and getting work placements with employers can be tricky - but worthwhile.
In Kent, Alan Klee was stunned by the response when Minster College decided to offer a school-based apprenticeship. "We did a presentation to parents, and about 600 turned up. It was phenomenal - the school had never experienced anything like it. We spent the first 20 minutes trying to find more chairs."
Nearly half the 450-strong year group applied for 91 places, and now do vocational subjects ranging from motor mechanics through horticulture to health and social care. "On those days these children like being in school," says Mr Klee. "It provides a curriculum suitable for purpose. They can go to college or straight into a job.
Diplomas, coming up for 2008, may help, but schools fear they may prove too academic for some. Some observers think the situation has improved as schools free up the curriculum themselves.
"It's getting better," says Professor Hallam. "There are a lot of schools working with colleges. One of the big things is choice, the kids feel in control, empowered, making decisions about their lives."
The debate is not going away. Curriculum reform is the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' big campaign for next year, driven by the concerns of its members.
Dr Mary Bousted, the union's general secretary, says: "We think teenagers have got a bad press. We have to value them and find out what they are concerned about. We've got to think creatively... and encourage them to be good"
Feel the power of the Force
Skill Force started in 2000, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education and Skills. It is now a charity, with 40 teams, working with about 200 schools.
An evaluation of the programme found:
Overall 88 per cent reduction in expected exclusions
66 per cent of students reported behaviour in school had improved; 58 per cent said they were told off less and 57 per cent had fewer detentions.
90 per cent of staff felt it had been quite successful or very successful in improving behaviour; 79 per cent felt it had improved behaviour outside school; 77 per cent of staff said Skill Force had reduced time spent disciplining particular students
Competence is key
Six schools piloted the Opening Minds scheme: there are now around 70 taking part in different ways. Research found less low-level disruption in the classroom.
For more information
The ATL curriculum campaign:
To download ippr report, Freedom's Orphans, for free, go to www.ippr.org